The caveat is coming this time of year. It enters at the end, after the prime suitors are listed, sprinkled in just in case. It’s the season of the “mystery team”.
They are here now, furtive but lurking, in the mix for uber-talents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, unless they are not. Clearing smoke and deciphering truth from misleading tweets is part of the mystery team process. Was something leaked to prompt a panic on the other side? Does a team just kicking the tires qualify as a mystery entrant? Is there ever legitimacy to the mystery team?
“I don’t give it much credence,” Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo said.
That’s good for him since the Nationals have supposedly rallied their pursuit of Harper, joining the Phillies, Dodgers and, yes, possibly a mystery team for the 26-year-old’s future services.
Rizzo was asked about mystery teams back at December’s Winter Meetings. The Nationals seemed a distant participant in the Harper competition then. Rizzo was more busy walking back the comments of managing principal owner Mark Lerner which indicated the Nationals were all but out on Harper. They, at the least, have regained control of the narrative by appearing back in the mix.
Which leaves the Nationals and other contenders to shoot sideways looks at each other. They have to balance multiple things: First, what’s the internal maximum valuation they carry for the player? Second, who else do they think is involved, and does that change the valuation line? Last, should mystery team media reports be swatted away, modestly absorbed or bought into?
Each stance holds risk. Marking a distinct demarcation can lead to a too-rigid approach when so much is on the line. Being flexible can lead to an overpay. Listening to, and believing in, rumors about mystery teams can create the biggest gaffe: negotiating against yourself. Dismissing them could cost a team a player because its offer was not in line with one they were not aware of.
“We have a value what we would like to give to receive the player and we very rarely vary from those types of things, those values we put on it,” Rizzo said.
There’s that hard valuation line.
Views from a trio of retired general managers run across the spectrum, though each believes, like Rizzo, the internal valuation is key. All were involved in the manic Alex Rodriguez negotiations of 2000. One landed him, the other jumped away, one never had a chance to make that much money work.
Doug Melvin was in charge of the Texas Rangers’ roster when his overzealous owner, Tom Hicks, agreed to give Rodriguez $252 million.
“With any free agency, any general manager, you don’t know what other teams are involved,” Melvin told NBC Sports Washington. “That’s what free agency is about. That’s what negotiations are about. Scott [Boras is] a very talented negotiator. At that particular time, you have to decide, do you want to pursue the individual or you don’t want to pursue him.
“But it’s very hard and very difficult to know what other teams are involved. It’s probably even harder today with all the social media that’s out there. You hear a new rumor every day. You just have to go about your own business. Put what you think the value of the individual is. When it comes to free agency, a lot of times you get caught bidding against yourself. And you sometimes find that out after negotiations.”
Steve Phillips withdrew the New York Mets from pursuing Rodriguez after receiving what he understood as an exorbitant list of ulterior demands from Boras.
“When an agent calls a team and says, do you have interest in this player, and somebody says, ‘I do, not at the level where you’re going,’ I think think it would be accurate to say that team has interest in the player,” Phillips told NBC Sports Washington. “Now, they’re probably not a real player in negotiations. But they are interested in the player, therefore [an agent] can say I’ve got 13 teams interested in my guy, then that may at times include somebody like that, which I don’t have a problem with. That’s building a market for your guy. And the way that I look at is, I think the best way I’ve experienced and I didn’t have a lot of success with Scott, making deals, we didn’t make a lot of deals back in the day, I would just say here is where I see the value for the player. If you have something better than that, take it. Don’t chase the ghost. Don’t chase what you think might be the deal out there. Only make the deal.
“The Kevin Brown deal back in the day where he got $105 million from the Dodgers? There are many who believe maybe the Dodgers were chasing the thought that somebody else was negotiating against them, and paid him $15, $20 million more than they probably had to to get the deal done. So when I watched that or heard that, and then my experience was go to where I think the value is, and stop there, and don’t play the game of, what if someone else is willing to go more.“
Pat Gillick knew he couldn’t spend what Rodriguez was after, either in length of contract or average annual valuation. However, he did listen to everything rolled out to the public, putting varied weight on each piece of information.
“When I was a general manager, I listen to all the information that might be out there,” Gillick told NBC Sports Washington. “Some of it might be false... But I think you have to listen to as much information [as possible]. There might be someone who has a tidbit or information that can be pertinent. Consequently, I don’t think you should dismiss anything. I think you should look at everything, then put a value on it. If it’s somewhat credible, then you’ve got to take it into consideration.
“I think before you start a negotiation, you’ve got to in your own mind know your maximum you can pay per year and the length you’re going to go. And once you reach that point, you just can’t go any further. You’re not dealing with one player. You’re dealing with maybe the whole team. You’re dealing with players in the future. If people know that your situation is you’re only going to go a certain amount of years, that kind of gets around the industry. It’s important you be consistent with the players you deal with. I don’t think you can go overboard and give somebody 10 years when really your max might be three or five.”
Melvin, Gillick and Phillips are watching the current process with intrigue. Melvin is a senior special advisor with the Milwaukee Brewers, Gillick is working in a similar capacity for the Philadelphia Phillies and Phillips is one of the lead voices on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio channel. None have the interest level of Rizzo.
So, read the next report with the assumption each general manager involved -- as much as they are in what ultimately becomes an ownership decision -- has a strict valuation. And, if the report includes a mystery team, know Rizzo will being waving that layer off.
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